‘Taking up their abode in the woods’: from Sutherland to Nova Scotia


Between 1813 and the 1830s the Mi’kma’q people of what became Earltown in Colchester County, Nova Scotia, faced an influx of colonists. These Sutherland families, many evicted multiple times from their rented homes and farms back home, hungered after security and were attracted by the possibility of outright ownership offered by the British government. Over the years they logged the forest, selling the timber, and transformed it into farmland. The ash from burning the logged areas provided abundant crops the first year, giving the impression that the area was more fertile than it actually was. These farms gradually cut off the Mi’kma’q from access to fishing and hunting grounds but provided stability and prosperity for Sutherland people. George Patterson’s 1877 account describes the early years from the perspective of the settlers’ descendants.

“The first settlers were Donald Mclntosh and Angus Sutherland, who took up their residence in the unbroken forest in the year 1813…”


To Scottish eyes the Nova Scotian landscape is still dominated by “unbroken forest”, but the  vast majority of this is second growth as trees have reclaimed much of the land cleared of old growth. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

“Of the early settlers, nearly all came from … Rogart, Lairg and Clyne. There were families from Inverness, two or three from Ross, and three or four from Caithness. All the original settlers spoke the Gaelic language, and it is still generally used by their descendants. Indeed, it is more generally spoken in Earltown than in any part of Nova Scotia proper. Still it received some admixture of others, for while it had old soldiers who, in the Highland regiments, had gone through the Peninsular War, and at least one who had fought at Waterloo, it at the same time had a foreigner, who had been in the same battle under Napoleon, and the two, instead of being ready to embrace as brothers, were rather disposed to fight their battles over again.”

“Like all who take up their abode in the woods, the first settlers had many difficulties to encounter. They were for years without a grist mill. During that time they got their grain ground partly by the handmill, and partly at a grist mill at the West Branch River. As there were no roads to the West Branch, and they had no horses, they were compelled to carry their grain on their backs to and from the mill, over a rough track. John McKay, known as the miller, put up the first grist mill, at a fall fifty feet high … The mill-stones … were taken from the West Branch, a distance of fourteen miles, on a drag hauled by 36 sturdy Highlanders…”

Cnoc na Guidh, W Earltown

Taken from the now vacant farm of Robert MacKay “Dubh” on Cnoc Na Guidh, West Earltown. The valley below and surrounding hills were settled in 1821 by Joseph Gordon’s emigrants from Strathbrora. Photo: Glen Matheson


South View from Spiddle Hill

Farms of people from Urachyle, Strath Brora. Photo circa 1900 from the Haskett-Smith Collection. With thanks to Glen Matheson.

“The early settlers were strong, industrious and economical. They were poor at first, but with great perseverance, they made themselves comfortable homes. There are men in Earltown to-day, who settled forty years ago in the woods without a guinea in their pockets, who have fine houses, large barns, excellent farms and considerable sums at interest.”

[It should be noted that it was very difficult for the poor to emigrate: transporting a family and supporting them for the first year before harvest is very expensive. It is most likely that the settlers used up their resources in the process of emigration. Until the assisted emigrations of the mid-nineteenth century it was the middling sort who could afford to emigrate and the impoverished were trapped in Scotland.]



“fine houses, large barns, excellent farms”. The reconstructions of eighteenth-century buildings at Fortress Louisbourg give a good sense of the homes of well-established Highland colonists. Photos: Elizabeth Ritchie.

“The inhabitants at that time were all connected with the Church of Scotland, but for several years they were without a minister. In consequence of this, persons sometimes carried their children to Pictou, a distance of twenty-five miles, to be baptized. They were occasionally visited by a minister of the Church of Scotland, and on such occasions it was not uncommon to see him baptize twenty or thirty children at once. Rev. W. Sutherland was the first minister who settled at Earltown. He was never called or inducted into the congregation, but remained ministering to a few who adhered to him till his death. The Rev. Alexander Sutherland, of the Free Church of Scotland, was the first minister who was called by the people, and ordained in the place. He was settled in the year 1845. Though the people were for years without a minister, they did not forsake the assembling of themselves together. There were among them men eminent as Christians, intimately acquainted with the truths of religion, and able to express themselves in a manner fitted to edify others. “The Men”, as they were called, held meetings regularly each Sabbath in the several parts of the settlement, and were the means of maintaining vital godliness among the people.”


George Patterson, A History of the County of Pictou, Nova Scotia (New Glasgow, 1877), 277-9.

With thanks to Glen Matheson whose research pointed me to the connections between east Sutherland and Earltown, and whose comments increased the accuracy of the post. And with thanks to Dr Sharon Weaver who introduced me to the delights of Nova Scotia.


Encroachments on our Ancient Language

Recently I was flipping through the Old Statistical Account, written in the 1790s. I was wondering whether a particular individual in Inveran, situated in what I knew was a Gaelic-speaking parish, would have understood English or not. The parish accounts revealed the beginning of a mighty cultural transformation, from one tongue to another.

The minister of Tain did a detailed analysis. He found that the ‘inhabitants of the town speak the English, and also the Gaelic or Erse. Both languages are preached in the church. Few of the older people, in the country part of the parish, understand the English language; but the children are now … taught to read English.’ In rural Rogart, those with English ‘speak it grammatically, though with the accent peculiar to most of the Northern Highlanders.’ So, in the 1790s townspeople were probably bilingual, older country-people were probably monoglot Gaelic speakers, and younger country-people were taught English at school.

Lt Col Sutherland in Gaidhlig

Lieutenant Colonel Alasdair Sutherland (1743-1822) from Braegrudy, Rogart, is buried underneath this rather ostentatious pillar which details his life in both English and Gaelic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

The second (or New) Statistical Account was written in the 1830s and 40s. By then Gaelic was still generally spoken in rural parishes and more and more people could also read it: in Kincardine each family owned a Gaelic Bible and Psalm-book. The minister of Lairg even thought that because they could read, the people now spoke their own language ‘more correctly.’

English was gaining ground. Young people learned at school but a ‘considerable proportion’ of Rogart’s population acquired the language ‘from books, and occasional conversation with educated persons’. They were therefore ‘more easily intelligible to an Englishman than the dialect spoken by the Lowland Scotch’ because their English had only ‘a degree of mountain accent and Celtic idiom’. Some English speakers had settled in the area, but they had not had any effect. These shepherds had moved from the Lowlands as the Sutherland Estate developed commercial sheep rearing operations and could speak only English. Lacking Gaelic must have meant a rather lonely existence. Their families had assimilated and all spoke Gaelic.

Despite the extension of English, the ministers of Lairg and Kincardine felt Gaelic had not lost ground as it was used in everyday and in religious life. The rural parishes which bucked this trend were Creich, where English was used by the majority, and Edderton, where they spoke ‘English less or more perfectly’. It is probably no coincidence that these parishes are close to the towns of Dornoch and Tain.

Intrigued by this change, yesterday evening I took a turn about the town of Dornoch, then drove to Pittentrail before cycling towards Lairg. I wanted to find evidence of Gaelic. There wasn’t much. Most was tokenistic, or connected with names of streets, towns or houses. There was a nice little collection of materials in the Dornoch Bookshop and a poster for traditional music events. When and how did this dissolution of Gaelic happen?

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The towns acted as catalysts for language change. In Dornoch this was dated from about 1810 and in Golspie from the 1790s. It was ascribed to the influx of ‘persons from the south country’ and to the increase in formal education, first in Gaelic then in English. The minister of Dornoch noted this was as much due to Gaelic schools as to English ones. Indeed in the town of Tain it was rare to find a person under the age of thirty who could speak Gaelic.

Tain was a complex parish, or perhaps the minister took a more sophisticated approach to analysing it. The parish was equally divided with Gaelic spoken in the country and in the fishing village of Inver while the town and the ‘higher ranks’ were English speakers. The parish of Dornoch has a similar town/country make-up and it would have been interesting to know if the situation was similar there.

 Language in Tain parish town Country/Inver village
Gaelic only 66 96
English only 100 36

The minister’s numbers indicate most people were bilingual, but he did warn this was not really the case. Presumably most people had a dominant language and could get by in the other.

In the 1840s Gaelic was still the preferred language of the people. Apart from in the town of Tain they used it for communicating with each other and they preferred attending Gaelic church services. However the minister of Dornoch could see what was coming. He expected that the ‘encroachments on our ancient language’ meant that in sixty or seventy years, that is by about 1900, it would be extinct.

He wasn’t far wrong.



Old Statistical Account and New Statistical Account of Scotland. Parishes of Creich, Dornoch, Edderton, Golspie, Kincardine, Lairg, Rogart, Tain. http://stataccscot.edina.ac.uk/static/statacc/dist/home

Alex’s Farm: On Space, Time and Going Places

They watched me, keeking through the living room window, as my bike skimmed from Pittentrail towards the A9 junction at the Mound. I was racing the light. Too easy in early summer, intoxicated by the evening daytime, to forget the gloaming. And to forget the invisibility of an unexpected cyclist. All evening Janet had plied me with biscuits to wash down the tea as I noted down what Alex patiently explained of the annual tasks of a sheepman. Half-understood notes I found weeks later, scrumpled in my fluorescent pink cycling jacket, when I had returned from the conference in Kentucky. Anxiety at my inadequate knowledge of practical farming had been ameliorated by discovering most speakers at the Agricultural History Society were fine historians but few could have overwintered a cow any more successfully than myself. So in June, at ten o’clock at night, Alex and Janet checked out the window, across two fields and the River Fleet, to ensure the pink blob was safely whizzing east on the A839 to the sea-line and back to Dornoch.
Two hundred years ago I wouldn’t have been there and not for the obvious reasons of my and the bike’s lack of existence. Cycling the mile west to Pittentrail, fording the river, returning east 6 miles then rousing the boatman at Little Ferry to cross Loch Fleet would have been a nonsense, particularly as there was a direct road passing Eiden Farm through Torboll Farm, on the correct side of the estuary and only 2 ½ miles. Today’s road, on the north rather than the south bank, dates from the Sutherland Estate’s investment in infrastructure in the 1810s.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with it's own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

The A839 which joins the A9 to Pittentrail, Lairg and then the north west. Complete with its own herd of wild goats. Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie.

William Young and Thomas Telford’s innovative crossing of the Fleet-mouth was a boon for east-coast travellers, and it made the Estate’s north bank road practicable. The tarmac thread connects some places, but it has added several miles between me and the Campbells. Only a few minutes on the bike, but the best part of an hour by foot, the way most folk travelled two hundred years ago. And in my mind’s map today’s network of roads has divorced places which are actually held fast.

Eiden, looking towardsTorboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from colelction of Elizabeth Ritchie

Eiden, looking towards Torboll and the Mound. Taken from the A839. Photo from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie

Last Autumn Alex treated me to an archaeology tour by tractor. I jumped out to open gates on what was the Eiden-Torboll road, its edges tasselled with alder and birch. Up on the rolling ridge, where a warmer climate had once permitted arable farming, crouched the heap of the chambered cairn and the tell-tale circles of Iron Age houses. Folk who farmed Eiden long before the Campbell men, according to family legend, tempted up from Argyll by promises of land made by their sister newly wed to the Earl of Sutherland back in the sixeenth century. And then Alex proposed a wee jaunt, just a bittie further, to see an old stone. Being particularly fond of old stones I was intrigued by the initials C on the Eiden side, and B on the Torboll side. I told him how, before the year Bonnie Prince Charlie came, territory was marked by walking the boys round the boundaries and beating them. The pain and trauma incising the marches in their consciousness. Painting a rock seems a better idea.

Roy's Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755. Shows the site of Eiden and Torboll Farms and the road up Strath Carnaig before clearance of townships, the creation of improvement farms and the building of the Mound and the north bank road. The south bank road is marked as a brown line. Covers the joins of three modern OS maps. Image from the National Map Library of Scotland http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html

But, pushed against the wind on that unremarkable ridge, I realised I was only a few hundred yards away from the site of several Sunday afternoon explorations in Strath Carnaig. My mental map had placed there much closer to home: a mere wiggle up the Loch Buidhe road from my side of the Mound. My place of Sunday hillwanders and a challenging cycling circuit. Eiden, on the other hand, was connected with Alex selling raffle tickets at winter ceilidhs in the Pittentrail Hall and the fun of playing tunes with the Accordion and Fiddle Club on Thursday nights. Yet here I was, looking at both of them together. The Hall just down there, and the Loch Buidhe road over by. Alex’s farm was in both. Bridges stretched across the fissure in my mind’s map.

Alex knew the old places I had tramped on those Sunday afternoons: the white-walled house with the green porch; the wobbly triangle of wall suggesting to the sheep that the grazing might be better within; and the head dyke up Strath Tollaidh (a strath it took me four years to notice, being incised into forgettable stubs by the division between OS map 16 and 21) which once kept the cattle out of the olden people’s crops. He knows them because, despite the illusion created by the technological advances of the 1810s and the happenstances of map boundaries, the separating space does not exist. They are the same place. It is the old road that tells that story: the one from Eiden past Torboll that we bumped along in the tractor; that all the generations before Thomas Telford walked when they drove their cattle; carried their cheese and butter to market; and along which the twelve year old boys slouched each term to board at Dornoch Academy.

The new roads connected some places. Other places, their connectedness now only by tractor tracks and hillpaths, became separate, even remote, as we whizz over the tarmac on our bikes.

With thanks to the Campbells for their generosity in tea, biscuits, sharing of knowledge, tractor rides, lambing tutorials, and allowing me to publish this!

Field Trip to Aberscross

This week’s post is by Roslyn Galbraith, a third year Scottish history student at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She writes of her experience at Aberscross. All photos are from Roslyn’s collection.

In mid May I met up with a group of fellow students from the Centre for History, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, to explore Aberscross, the site of a Sutherland farming township. The area, near the boundary between Dornoch and Rogart parishes, has a long history of settlement and agriculture. Aberscross was the residence of the Murrays who came to Sutherland in 1198, who were involved in many feuds and battles fighting for the Earls of Sutherland and defending the region from their enemies the MacKays.

Strathfleet. The tides from Loch Fleet are now controlled by the engineering work of Thomas Telford and Sutherland Estate factor, William Young.

Strathfleet. The tides from Loch Fleet are now controlled by the engineering work of Thomas Telford and Sutherland Estate factor, William Young.

Although the weather forecast was not favourable, the heavens were with us for it stayed dry for the most part. We clambered up one side of Strathfleet. As we reached a certain height it was possible to recognise the valley floor below us. As it was subjected to tidal floods farming took place up the sides of the hills. We came across a large circled area outlined by stones with what appeared to contain at least three separated areas – maybe the foundations of a tower house: residence of the Murrays perhaps?

Not far from this mysterious outline, Dr Ritchie showed us an example of a corn drying kiln, where barley or oats were dried, in preparation for grinding. The kiln would have had a roof, while the hole on the left side of the kiln was where air was bellowed in to help the drying process.

Dr Ritchie on top of a drying kiln

Dr Ritchie on top of a drying kiln

As we climbed further we soon came to a recognisable settlement, which contained a longhouse with turf walls built on a stone foundation. This would have had a thatched roof supported by wooden beams. The family would live at one end with the cattle at the far end or byre-end on a slight downwards slope with drainage to divert animal waste from the cattle’s feet. Between the longhouse and the enclosure ran a curving ditch which was designed to divert water away from the home and living area. There was also a kaleyard for the cultivation of vegetables, such as kale and cabbage; an enclosure where hens and chickens might be kept; and a threshing floor with storage area.

The threshing floor was an interesting discovery, for none of us students knew at the start what this outline might be and had fun guessing its use. This smaller building was probably used for storing grain but it had two doorways opposite each other, in line with the prevailing wind. This section in the middle was where the grain was threshed so the airflow separated the wheat from the chaff. Between the longhouse and the enclosure ran a curving ditch which was designed to divert water away from the home and living area. This whole settlement was much easier to make out from the other side of the hill.

Settlement site, containing enclosure, longhouse, and kaleyard

Settlement site, containing enclosure, longhouse, and kaleyard

Threshing floors/storage buildings on either side with an enclosed field or garden in the middle

Threshing floors/storage buildings on either side with an enclosed field or garden in the middle

Other areas of interest included the runrigs where barley and oats were cultivated in raised ridges with furrows for drainage between them, and the summer pastures for the cattle and sheep on higher ground.

Probable remnants of rig and furrow cultivation.

Probable remnants of rig and furrow cultivation.

The boundary between the infield and the outfield has been overgrown by heather, but the change in vegetation still gives a clue as to where the cattle were grazed in the summer, away from the growing crops.

The boundary between the infield and the outfield has been overgrown by heather, but the change in vegetation still gives a clue as to where the cattle were grazed in the summer, away from the growing crops.

It gave me an understanding to how people lived and farmed pre-clearance, producing enough food and produce for a comfortable subsistence existence provided the weather and harvest seasons were favourable.

We sat for a bit debating on where the cottars might have lived. Were the small square buildings the homes of the poorest members of this society? As there is almost no information about the cottars we could only surmise on what type of building they lived in and in which part of the settlement they stayed.

Perhaps sitting in a cottar's home? Just enough space for a bed, a chair and a fire.

Perhaps sitting in a cottar’s home? Just enough space for a bed, a chair and a fire.

It was soon time to leave and we stumbled down the hill as the heavens opened up, giving us a good soaking. On reaching Pittentrail Inn for our supper we reflected on the day’s findings, which brought what I had learned in class to life. It was a most enjoyable, thought-provoking and interesting field trip.

It’s Complicated … The Relationship of William Murray and Girzel Grant: Part 2

Glen Matheson was raised in a rural area known as Earltown in northern Nova Scotia. This Highland community was settled predominately by people from the eastern parishes of Sutherland. Many of Glen’s ancestors lived in Strathbrora, Strathfleet and Fleuchary as well as in the Lochbroom area. Glen has been researching the emigrants from Sutherland to Nova Scotia and beyond for over four decades. However his passion is the stories of the early settlers of his home community. He maintains a blog at earltown.com where one will find several connections to the cleared settlements of Sutherland.

The story of William Murray and Girzel Grant took a fateful twist on August 16th, 1809. Grace decided to attend a market fair in Tain along with many from Sutherland. This was an opportunity to sell her surplus cheese and butter outside of her immediate area. It was also a social outing, a break from the tedium of farm life. It was a popular event: a crowd of over 100 people arrived at the northern pier to board the small ferry boat at Meikle Ferry. The ferry across the Dornoch Firth substantially shortened the journey to and from Tain. The boat was overloaded due to the negligence of the ferry operator and the ferry sank midstream. Ninety nine people perished. Many of the remains washed up on shore in the days following. Neither Grace nor her remains were ever seen again. She did not ‘have so much as a grave linen to cover her remains at last’.

Meikle Ferry. Picture courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Meikle Ferry. Picture courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

It would appear that William accepted God’s Will and continued his duties. In 1810 a document shows that he received ten pounds from the charitable relief fund for survivors provided by donors as far away as India and South Africa.

Meikle Ferry Disaster Relief Fund. Grissel Grant is named about half way down the page. Image courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Meikle Ferry Disaster Relief Fund. Grissel Grant is named about half way down the page. Image courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

Within four years William married a younger lady named Margaret. The routine resumed. William continued with his duties in Creich. Around 1813 William and Margaret had a daughter. They named her Grace. It’s complicated…

Out of this complicated relationship between William and Grace had issued at least six children. We have no information on three daughters, Grace and two Marys. One of the Marys likely died young. The remaining three children emigrated to northern Nova Scotia and were among the early settlers of their respective communities. With them went few material possessions however their father’s love of all things holy sustained them in the unfamiliar forests of North America. It is not surprising that several of his descendants were clergy and many were pillars in the offices of the church.

Robert Murray, their son, was born in 1783 and emigrated to Pictou in 1819. He obtained a ticket of location for a land grant in the new settlement of Earltown in the Colchester District. This was an extensive area almost entirely settled by families from East Sutherland. In 1821 he married Mary Sutherland “Ballem” of Craigton, Rogart. She had emigrated to Earltown in 1819 with her brothers. As there were many Murrays in this part of Nova Scotia, they were known as the Valleys, Robert’s land being located in a narrow valley.

William and Grace’s daughter Janet married Alexander MacIntosh of Evelix in Dornoch. They and their infant daughter Grace emigrated to Pictou in 1812. They settled at Elmfield near Roger’s Hill or Ben Na Mhathanach to the Gaels. Two of their grandsons were prominent Presbyterian ministers, Rev. John Murray in Cape Breton and Rev. James Murray in Ontario. Several other clergy in both the Presbyterian and United Churches descend from this couple.

Janet Murray McIntosh. Image from Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)

Janet Murray McIntosh. Image from Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)

Their son Donald spent a few years in the British Cavalry. He married Margaret Campbell of Cyderhall and settled on a croft at Rearquhar. He lost the croft due to insolvency in 1831 but managed to secure passage for his family to Pictou. He obtained land near Earltown at a place called Loganville. His farm was on a lofty perch overlooking the coastal plains in northern Nova Scotia. The hill was known locally as The Craig and Donald’s descendants have been known as The Craigs ever since. A grandson, Rev. George Murray, served for many years as a missionary in Trinidad.

William and his second wife Margaret remained in Scotland. They appear to have had two daughters. One married a Campbell and the other, Grace, married John Munro, a pensioner of the 78th Regiment. Their son was William Munro. He continued the family tradition of religious leadership becoming a Precentor and Elder in the Free Church of Tain.

William Murray died April 4th, 1825, his body rests somewhere in eastern Sutherland and his spirit went forth in hope of a glorious resurrection. Grace’s earthly remains repose somewhere in the North Sea and her spirit went forth…

It’s complicated.

George MacDonald, Men of Sutherland (1937, 2014)
Rev. Donald Munro, Records of Grace in Sutherland (1953)
Rev. John Murray, History of the Scotsburn Congregation, Pictou County (1925)
Personal communication, Dr Elizabeth Ritchie, March 2015

Andrew MacDonald of Rogart fights the French in Canada

Andrew MacDonald not only survived the severe injuries he sustained fighting the army of Siraj-ad-daula at Plassey under Clive of India, but he survived the long sea voyage back to Britain to recuperate. He recovered with his military and imperial ambitions undimmed. His employers, the East India Company, helped him to buy a commission in the Scottish Regimental Contingent which was being recruited to serve in North America. 

By the 1750s, Britain and France were at war. The two nations fought everywhere that they had political and economic interests: in West Africa, India, the Philippines, and in North America. The North American struggle broke out in 1754 over the allegiance of the aboriginal people of the Ohio. Defeat there prompted the British to take on the French in their Nova Scotian territories. The French had a major military and commercial fort on the coast of what is now Cape Breton. It had been captured ten years earlier by the British but returned in exchange for Madras in India. Early in 1758 Andrew MacDonald was sent to assist with besieging the Fort of Louisbourg. The French garrison resisted for just long enough to prevent the British from marching westwards to invade Quebec that year. However, British naval superiority prevented the French government from reinforcing the fort with men, munitions and supplies so it was not too long before MacDonald and his comrades captured Louisbourg. Following their victory he was moved south to Halifax where the British were building up their military presence. The man from Rogart was soon moved westwards to join the force which sailed from the fort he had helped capture, as J.M. Bumsted explains. The series of

British attempts to seize Quebec … did not prevent another major expedition under General James Wolfe … The largest and best-equipped military force that North America had ever known assembled at Louisbourg over the winter of 1758-9 while the frozen ice of the St Lawrence isolated the French.  The British force consisted of 8,600 troops, most of them regulars, and 13,500 sailors aboard 119 vessels, including 22 ships of the line and five frigates.  This great armada required six days simply to clear Louisbourg harbor in early June 1759.  On 27 June Wolfe landed his army on the Ile de Orleans without serious French opposition. There followed over two months of skirmishing.

Andrew MacDonald and his comrades knew time was running out – the massive British fleet could not overwinter in the St Lawrence. At the end of the summer troops found a path up the cliffs leading to the plain above. They sneaked past the French sentries and the rest of the British troops followed them. The French commander, Montcalm, made a tactical error. Rather than waiting for reinforcements he decided to attack the British who were in formation on the plain. The French ranks broke, but not before both Wolfe and Montcalm were killed. The British took Quebec. There were many months of negotiations, but it was the victory at Quebec which marked the British domination of North America and the decline of France as a superpower.

ImageThe Citadel (British fort) at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where MacDonald spent much time.

Permission to use this photo kindly given by Nova Scotia Tourism Agency: photographer R. Garnett

The capture of Quebec was also important to MacDonald personally. It earned him a promotion to Captain and a return to Halifax. His climb up the ranks continued and in 1766 he became a Major in the 59th Regiment. Rather than returning home when he retired on full pay in 1770, he remained in Halifax. He had settled there and had many friends among the Scottish merchants of the city. The year after his retirement he joined the North British Society and for the next quarter century he was an active and enthusiastic member of this philanthropic club. He is described rather formidably as having a ‘powerful and robust personality’! MacDonald worked to develop the burgeoning colonial town of Halifax. Despite having been settled in the colony of Nova Scotia for thirty years, in 1798 he decided to return to Scotland. For the final decade of his life, until his death in 1809, he lived where he had been born, in Rogart.


Annals, North British Society, Halifax, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768-1903http://www.archive.org/details/annalsnorthbriti00nortuoft pps 20-21

J.M. Bumsted, A History of the Canadian Peoples (Oxford: OUP, 2007)

Andrew MacDonald of Rogart fights the War-Elephants of Bengal

In Rogart, on the 7th of May 1721, a little boy was born to the MacDonalds and named Andrew.  He was educated at the parish school where he would have learned English as well as arithmetic, and perhaps some of the classics.  After five years there, when he was probably in his early teens he went to work on the farm.  This did not suit him.  He apparently became ‘dissatisfied with the hard, monotonous toil’.  At the time the East India Company was recruiting in the Highlands.  He and some relations, probably also young men, fancied the adventure and possible profits of trying for their fortunes half way around the world.  He was sent to Calcutta where he enlisted with the military wing of the EIC.  It was a good time for a healthy, ambitious young man as the Company was expanding its reach across India.  For several years he was ‘employed on most active and arduous work’, the ‘constant turmoil’ agreeing well with the ‘rugged and trusty contingent of Scottish Highlanders, of which Macdonald was a leading spirit’.  He was lucky to avoid rampant diseases such as cholera which struck down even healthy young men.  After ten years his ambitions were satisfied and he was promoted to the office of Military Inspector.  This entailed him supervising three distant trading outposts of the Company.  He seems to have performed well here also as he was then made a Superintendent of the Convoy and Defence Department which sought new trade.  This was an exhausting and responsible role which involved travel far away from Company headquarters.  It was also dangerous, as the EIC’s techniques were frequently coercive so were not always welcomed by locals.  It is not clear what trouble Andrew got into, but several times he was badly wounded.  The work, travel and fighting combined with the severe climate in the interior of India eventually took its toll and he was sent back to Scotland to recuperate.  In 1754 he returned to India and resumed his former position.  Within three years he participated in a crucial event in India’s history.  The battle at Plassey was really more of a skirmish, but it was crucial to the East India Company’s triumph over its French rivals and to the establishment of British rule in India.

Siraj-ad-daula, the young Nawab of Bengal had, with a vast army, taken Calcutta from the EIC in June of 1756.  The Company headquarters in Madras did not hear of this until August when they dispatched Lord Clive with a 2,500 strong mixed European-Indian force.  Clive drove Siraj’s army out and replaced him with Mir Jafar, a puppet ruler.  Siraj’s spies caught scent of the conspiratorial discussions and moved south to Plassey.  Clive also moved with 2,000 Indian sepoys, 600 British infantry, and about 200 artillerymen with ten field pieces and two small howitzers.  At some point during these manoeuvres, Andrew MacDonald from Rogart had joined the force.  Clive’s men were outnumbered and his council of war voted against action.  After an hour or so meditating in a grove of trees, Clive changed his mind ordering the army to move to Plassey.  In History Today magazine Richard Cavendish describes what happened:

“The confrontation came on a cloudy morning north of the village of Plassey on the bank of the Hughli river.  Clive’s army was drawn up in three divisions, as was the Nawab’s army of perhaps 40,000 men with its war-elephants and more than 50 cannon.  One division was commanded by Mir Jafar.  After an opening cannonade, a crash of thunder at noon heralded a torrential downpour of rain that lasted half an hour.  The British artillerymen quickly covered their cannon and ammunition with tarpaulins, but the enemy failed to do the same and their artillery was put out of action, so that when the Nawab’s army moved forward, assuming that Clive’s cannon were also out of action, it was met with a withering storm of fire.  The enemy withdrew and Siraj, who distrusted his generals and had already been warned of impending defeat by his astrologer (who had possibly been bribed), lost his nerve when Mir Jafar advised retreat.  When Clive’s army attacked again, Siraj fled on a fast camel.  His demoralized army followed suit and when the British entered the enemy camp at about 5pm, they found it abandoned.”


Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, oil on canvas (Francis Hayman, c. 1762) [Image from National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01347/Robert-Clive-and-Mir-Jafar-after-the-Battle-of-Plassey-1757%5D

Clive reported that he had only lost eighteen men and he estimated that his opponent had lost 500.  Siraj was killed by his own people and was replaced by Mir Jafar.  As he had planned, Clive operated the strings of his puppet ruler, gaining control of Bengal.  Andrew MacDonald almost paid a high price for helping Britain gain control of India.  He was severely wounded at Plassey and left on the field as dead.  He was rescued and sent back to Britain as an invalid. 

To be continued…

Annals, North British Society, Halifax, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768-1903http://www.archive.org/details/annalsnorthbriti00nortuoft pps 20-21

Richard Cavendish, ‘The Battle of Plassey’, History Today, Volume 57, Issue 6 (2007)